Cautious optimism with Chad Billingsley

LOS ANGELES -- Rick Honeycutt stopped in the clubhouse after Wednesday night's game, the Los Angeles Dodgers having just vanquished the Pittsburgh Pirates again, 4-1 before 29,729 at Dodger Stadium, to begin a season 5-1 for the first time since 1999, and I asked him about Chad Billingsley. Specifically, I asked him if Billingsley's own red-hot start can be attributed to the well-documented mechanical adjustment Honeycutt, the Dodgers pitching coach, asked him to make at the end of last season.

Honeycutt didn't want to get that analytical.

"Chad has great stuff," Honeycutt said. "He just has to get into his timing and his delivery and be comfortable with it. What the reason is, I don't know, but it's working, let's just leave it at that. He is throwing the ball great. He has done it before, and we know he can do it again."

Honeycutt is right about one thing, of course: Billingsley has done it before. Done it in flashes and surges and bits and pieces and snippets. Did it, basically, for the entire first half of the 2009 season on the way to his first All-Star berth. But what he never really has done is sustain it, at least not for any longer than that.

And that is why, as we look up and see that Billingsley has two wins and a 0.63 ERA after two starts this season, and as we know that ERA might be even lower if his spot in the order hadn't come up with the bases loaded in the sixth causing him to be lifted for a pinch hitter after just 77 pitches, that it is difficult to get too excited about any of this.

What we can do, though, is exercise cautious optimism. Is this a different Billingsley, a more consistent Billingsley, a guy who can be a reliable presence in the starting rotation for a full season? Is this finally the Billingsley we always expected to see one day, the former first-round draft pick who so far has never quite measured up to his advance billing?

We won't know the answer to any of that for a while. But for now, it's fun to watch. It was fun to see him shut out the San Diego Padres on three hits over 8 1/3 innings last Friday night. And it was fun to watch him hold the Pirates to a single run over six dazzling innings, that lone run coming when Clint Barmes deposited Billingsley's first pitch of the third inning over the wall in left.

And that's another encouraging sign from Billingsley: after that home run, he went right back to dominating, retiring nine of the next 10 batters. The old Billingsley, you may recall, would sometimes have trouble shaking off stuff like home runs, and that would often cause whatever trouble he got himself into on the mound to snowball.

"I don't know if we have to look at it like it's a different Billingsley," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He has had two solid outings. I don't think we need to look too far out, other than just asking him to keep us in games. He is going to have games when he isn't as good, just like everybody else does. Chad is going to have those outings. We just want him to be consistent throughout the year, keep us in games and give us a chance to win. That is really all we can ask."

Billingsley said the mechanical adjustment he made -- keeping his front leg from flying toward third base and thus keeping himself more in line in his delivery -- has begun to feel second nature, to the point he no longer has to be conscious of it. Is that the reason why he suddenly is pitching like a right-handed Clayton Kershaw? Or, is it what Honeycutt said, that we shouldn't try to figure out why but instead should just enjoy the ride, as long as it lasts?

Whatever it is, this is a pitcher who seems to be surfing a wave of confidence. And that is something we have rarely, if ever, seen from Billingsley.

"Success breeds confidence," Honeycutt said. "They go hand in hand. Right now, you're seeing him totally in control. He isn't right on target with every ball he throws, but we're not seeing that wildness. I like to call them well-thrown balls, and we are seeing a lot of well-thrown balls coming out of his hand. Those are quality pitches. He just needs to do that consistently. That is all you want anybody to do."

That consistency is the one thing that always has eluded Billingsley. That is why we shouldn't get too excited about two starts, however impressive they might have been. But for the first time in a while, there is a sense when Billingsley goes to the mound that he trusts his stuff and trusts himself. With those things in place, there is a pretty good chance the rest will follow.